Come to the CABARET • Bay City Players Revisit the Haunting & Heady Decadence of the Kit Kat Klub

    icon Jun 27, 2019
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Cabaret is one of those musical theatrical creations that brings you into a world that is equally charming, foreign, familiar, unpredictable; and ultimately horrifying and unforgettable. It debuted in 1966 with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, with a book by Joe Masteroff, which was adapted from the short autobiographical novella Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, which appeared as part of his series of works titled The Berlin Stories that chronicled the social landscape of Germany between 1929-30 as the Nazis were rising to power in Weimar Germany.

At that time hyper-inflation was rampant and there was a vast divide between the wealthy and the impoverished, creating a social instability that led many to escape their cares & woes within the decadent and delightful walls of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, which featured 24/7 entertainment and endless fountains of alcohol and drug-fueled ambiance.

The main focus of the narrative revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles - a character who’s virtues are more often than not masqueraded by vices not fully comprehended.  A sub-plot involves the doomed romance between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor.  Overseeing the action is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, which serves as a metaphor for ominous political developments in Weimar Germany.

After the 1966 original Broadway production became a hit, it exploded into consciousness in 1972 with the film version directed & choreographed by the late Bob Fosse, which catapulted actress Liza Minnelli and actor Joel Grey to international stardom.

And now Bay City Players has assembled a star-studded cast under the thoughtful and accomplished creative control of director Kurt Miller, musical director Kevin Cole, and choreographed by noted Broadway choreographer Ryan VanDenBoom, that will bring this unforgettable world where fantasy and reality blur together to life on the regional stage between July 25-28th. 

Recently, I sat down with Kurt Miller and Kevin Cole to discuss their take on this remarkable musical creation where dreams of happiness from living in the moment overlap with latent and horrific nightmares of the future.

“I think the narrative thrust of Cabaret is revealed in part of the Introduction, which is kind of a trick,” reflects Director Kurt Miller. “The Emcee invites you into the Kit Kat Klub and says, ‘Here we have no troubles, here everything is beautiful’, yet we see the world getting darker and darker as the music gets darker. By the end of Act 1 the whole cast is singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and by the time we get to the end of the play, the Emcee is taken away by a couple guards. He didn’t see it coming because the change was so subtle and for me  this musical is relevant because there are so many parallels to what’s going on in the world right now. A hard right wing group just killed a centrist on his balcony recently in Germany, so the things going on in Cabaret are not old - they’re still with us, not as a reminder, but to show us they can happen again, so be careful.”

Cabaret has evolved over the years since the musical first took Broadway by storm in 1966. Bay City Players will be performing the most recent 1998 version, which was choreographed by Rob Marshall and directed by Sam Mendes.  “You could only hint at certain things in the 1966 version,” reflects musical director Kevin Cole, “and the famous film version by Bob Fosse that starred Liza Minelli & Joel Grey that came out in 1972 grounded it more and gave us two great Kander & Ebb songs, Money, Money and Maybe This Time that didn’t exist in the theatrical musical.  When Mendes got hold of it in 1998 with this version it make everything more real. This version is grounded more in reality than the other versions, which is interesting because as forward thinking as the movie version was for 1972, it really looks tame compared to what we’re doing now with this production.”

What makes Bay City Players rendition of Cabaret so appealing is the A-List directorial team and cast they’ve assembled. With Kurt Miller directing, along with the internationally acclaimed Kevin Cole handling the musical direction, as Cole explains it: “Cabaret is one of those shows on my bucket list that I’ve always wanted to do, and Kurt and I have not had the opportunity to work together in this way, so it took me about 35 seconds to answer yes when he asked if I would tackle the musical direction.”

“But the icing on the cake was getting Ryan VanDenBoom and Kaitlin Brunette to handle the choreography. Ryan did a Coen Brothers movie and is a working genius on Broadway, so what a great opportunity for our cast to work with such a great dancer. It’s one thing to be a great dancer with great ideas, but many times on Broadway choreographers will have their assistants do all the teaching, which aren’t always the best ones to communicate with the cast. Watching him communicate is a joy - he teaches very well.”

Pivotal characters are being played by David Bowden as the Emcee, Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Miller as Sally Bowles, Andrew Fergerson as Clifford Bradshaw, Christopher Scheddel  as Ernst Ludwig, Jessie Wood-Miller as Fraulein Schneider, Rachel Doriean as Fraulein Kost, Paul Lutenske as Herr Schultz,

Cameron Pichan as Max; and last but not least, the remarkable Kit Kat Klub Dancers, consisting of Rita Gnida, Marcy Chambers, Kaitlin Brunette, Alivia Combs, Aubrey Rose Herr, Ally Nacarato, Jack Horrigan, Melissa Bornemann, Patrick Kemmerling and Jeremy Gnida.

When asked to reflect upon the strengths each actor brings to these roles, Miller starts with Andrew Fergerson, who plays author Christopher Isherwood’s character of Cliff Bradshaw in the play. “Although Isherwood appears as a bisexual character in Cabaret, he in fact was a true homosexual and wrote a book back in 1976 titled Christopher and His Kind, which was a book that opened the door back then and also exposed what it was like being a gay man in Germany during the Weimar Republic. All that factors into the way Andrew is shaping his character. Andrew has played numerous different roles for Players, and works at WNEM-TV5 as a cameraman.”

“To my mind, the role of the Emcee is like a Greek chorus that brings the audience along throughout the production, commenting on some of the action and participating in it sometimes as well, and David Bowden  has pipes of steel when it comes to his singing voice. That particular character needs a loose improvisational feel - he’s like a ringleader just this side of slimy - and David possesses all those remarkable abilities,” notes Kevin.

“There’s a piece in this play where the Emcee agrees to smuggle and sees lots of way to make money,” adds Kurt. “In terms of choreography, the Emcee is literally controlling the Kit Kat Klub dancers like  ‘puppet women’, which to my mind reflects the underlying rise of the Nazi Party and Weimar Republic in 1929-30, which is the underpinning of the entire show.”

“At the end of Act 1 the Emcee brings out a gramophone, squats, and listens to this little boy’s voice singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and I told David to think of that song as if the world is happening to you and not for you, because it’s going to change all that you know about the freedom you currently have.”

 “At that time in Germany there were clubs for gay men, gay women, cross-dressers - you name it - and all of that came to an end with the rise of the Nazi Party. So at the end we see the Emcee in his striped prison dress with a star and a pink triangle embroidered upon it, because the Germans had dozens of patches for categorizing different prisoners - whether they were Communists, or gays, or drug addicts - they developed this efficient way for identifying what type of undesirable you were at the time.”

“Sally Bowles is being played by Betsy Miller, who was just accepted to go to Carnegie-Melon next year,” continues Kurt. “She’s like a sponge in the sense that when you direct her she has a natural ability, much like her mother Jessie, to command this intense focus from an audience. When you’re blocking a scene if you say to her, ‘Give me a little more of this…’ and without explaining what ‘this’ was, she innately comes out and performs the scene exactly the way you want.  Betsy is fearless and she’s never the type of performer that falls back upon her talent. She’s all about becoming the role. What also makes having Betsy and her mother, Jessie, performing together  so special is how this is probably the only time they will be doing a show together, as Betsy will be heading off to Carnegie-Melon, which adds a bittersweet element to their interaction.”

“With this looming rise of Nazi Germany on the horizon and all this chaos at the Kit Kat Klub, in the middle of it all is this sweet love story between Sally and Cliff,” adds Kevin. “Sally is just trying to survive and is like a cockroach in that sense - she’ll figure a way no matter what and is naïve but not naïve - she’ll do whatever it takes to move forward. The way Kurt is having Betsy interpret Sally’s character is somewhat like a pressure cooker: how much can it take before it explodes. Sally seems flippant and wants to appear flippant, but that’s just a cover. She understands what’s going on.”

When asked how he is dealing with this production from a musical standpoint, Cole says he isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. “Lyrically, this book is all laid out for you so it requires a straightforward approach because things in this show are layered. You don’t need to do anything with the music or lyrics to get away from that; and Kurt has it all set up and staged.  The way I like to work is get with the solo performers and chorus and make sure they have everything in place musically-speaking; but then Kurt comes in and pushes where he needs to in terms of diction and placing the emphasis on a certain word. We have that give and take going;  and I love that because so many times I don’t have that luxury.  Some of these songs are so well-known that the audience can tune out and hear the version in their head of Liza and Joel; but I want them to go someplace different so people come away with something different.”

“It’s kind of like ‘dirty shtick’ in the sense that the performers at the Kit Kat Klub have done these songs a thousand times, but they make them sound fresh,” notes Kurt. “The same with the dancers - they’ve done these dances a thousand times, but they can’t be the best performers in the world otherwise they wouldn’t be performing in the Kit Kat Klub.”

“For me what encapsulates the moral of Cabaret is found in this song called What Would You Do? That’s featured in the second act,” concludes Kurt. “It’s about how you have to go along to get along and how while it’s great to talk about principles, what would you do in a particular circumstance? That song for me tells the story about what happened to Germany in the 1930s - so many people said ‘ We can’t fight this’, but then the Germans had all the guns.”

Bay City Players will present CABARET, July 25 – 28, 2019 at the Bay City Players, 1214 Columbus Avenue, in Bay City. Performance times are 7:30 PM Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 PM on Sunday. Tickets are available by visiting or by contacting the Bay City Players box office Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. at (989) 893-5556.

Ticket prices are Students: $10.00, Adults:  $20.00.

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